Must see films for Urban Planners and Designers

By Julia Moiso

Sometimes it seems like the profession of urban planning and design shifts between being bureaucratically mundane to wildly imaginative, exciting and futuristic.

One of the great aspects of urban planning is that everyone at one point, whether they realise it or not, has formed basic thoughts about what they perceive as “good planning”. Everyday citizens interact with different typologies of the built environment; a women stuck in traffic on her way home most probably wonders why there are not better routes for her to travel home, a pedestrian caught at a red traffic light maybe wonders why such timely provisions are set up to prohibit him from crossing the road, even though there is little vehicular cross traffic. These interactions between citizens and the environment are a such common thread of everyday urban life, it can be said that planning is a fairly popular topic in the media, both directly and indirectly. Whether it’s a blockbuster dystopian future film or an anthropology documentary, planning has found it’s way onto the big screen.

I’ve compiled a list (in no particular order) of some of my favourite planning and design related films and documentaries that planners and non-planners alike may also find both visually intriguing and thought provoking:

Blade Runner (1982)

It’s hard to believe that this film was created in 1982 featuring such futuristic visions for urban design, and it’s even harder to believe that Harrison Ford features in discussions about urban planning! This film, created by Ridley Scott, is one of my favourite dystopian, fantasy films that triggers viewers fascination with space and place. The film is set in what is supposed to be Los Angeles in 2019 (37 years into the future from its conception) and opens with a nightmare scene of future LA where ‘air-cars’ maneuver through the darkness lit by fires and explosions among a sea of monolithic commercial towers. The visuals of these towers dominate the city and embody a “Times Square vibe” of supersized commercial billboards as a constant reminder of the corporate powers that control the city. In the film, the wealthy citizens live in isolated high-rise towers, where powerful corporations control the city of 106 million people and the poor are shunned to polluted, crime filled streets. In my opinion, Blade Runner is one of the most visually stunning movies ever created.

Metropolis (1927)

Yes you read that correctly, yes it was created in 1927 and yes it is a silent movie, but don’t let that deter you from viewing one of Fritz Lang’s more famous creations, and a masterpeice of early 20th century film. Metropolis is an amazing piece of a architectural sci-fi film, set in a dystopian Orwellian urban future where citizens are enslaved to huge industrial organisations. The built form comprises of intensely dense and souring high-rise buildings, mass freeways (which were barely common in 1927) and, of course, flying cars. Metropolis depicts the dark side of urban places which may have either intentionally or unintentionally urged viewers to move towards a suburban lifestyle.
If silent film isn’t really your thing, I recommend you watch this film purely for the visuals, as it’s hard to believe that this film was made before the advent of CGI (computer generated imagery). Lang’s unrestrained imagination created a city of the future in which step-pyramid towers rise from vaguely glimpsed streets, drawing inspiration from iconic New York architecture such as the Rockefeller Centre.

Back to the Future (Part 1 and 2 - I have no time for the 3rd film) 

Ah, the Back to the Future series, a cult CLASSIC, and it even makes the cut to some of my favourite childhood films. Speilberg’s classics can be portrayed as some of the most memorable films about urbanism, since it shows the comparable disparity between built environments of different ages; walkable urban and driveable suburban (in 3 different time periods). The walkable urban environment is dominant during a scene in 1955 in downtown Hill Valley, a fictional small Californian town centre based around a landscaped plaza. As the camera pans, and the movie progresses, you will notice an overwhelming town centre vibrancy as jobs, shopping, schools, and houses are all within walking distance to the local centre, integrating well into the character of the walkable town.

Another form of the built environment the film indirectly explores is the driveable suburban characteristics that dominate the fictional town of Hill Valley in 1985. The nearly abandoned town centre is now home to x-rated theatres and the landscaped plaza has been converted into a parking lot. For those of you with A+ memory and have seen the movie 20 times like me, you will remember that Marty McFly parks his DeLorean behind an old 1955 billboard that advertises a planned mass subdivision and master planned estate (in which Marty will be born into), thus demonstrating the shift from walkable urbanism to driveable urbanism over the next coming decades.

In Back to the Future 2, the film aces typical downtown walkable urban re-development trends that occurred within America during the late 20th century. The film also shows that the outer suburbs have become slums, which can reflect 21st century suburbanisation of American poverty. For predicting such accuracy (minus the whole flying car deal) I strongly recommend you re-visit this urban classic this weekend.

Human Scale (2013)

The Human Scale, looks at ways to turn urban places into better places to live and makes an excellent case on how to design cities around people instead of automobiles. This wildly intriguing film/documentary examines cities, from New York to Chongqing, which demonstrate various problems, solutions and possibilities for urban development. This film, heavily inspired by Jan Gehl, explores how humanity is rapidly urbanizing and how humans are increasingly adapting to the new automated lifestyle and questions the way cities are being built and if they are being built conducive for our human needs of the future.

Another popular category of planning movie includes films that are determined to exploit the underbelly of picture-perfect American suburbs.

Truman Show (1998)

Another classic, this film directed by Peter Weir stars Jim Carrey and was filmed in Seaside, Florida (known as Seahaven in the film) - one of the first and most iconic new urbanism projects at this time, characterised by mixed uses and walkability. Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank, a man whose entire life is a 24-hour reality TV show. The irony is that not only is The Truman Show a satire of reality TV, but also of urban planning. On one hand, the film explores a place where everything (places of employment, retail, and social settings) is delightfully within walking distance. On the other hand, it may remind planners of the dark site of utopian master planned visions and the dangers of paternalism.

American Beauty (1999)

Similarly to The Truman Show (and even Edward Scissorhands), at a surface glance, the film is set in an ideal suburban american lifestyle with roses, white picket fences, nice large homes with sizeable backyards and extremely happy neighbours who appear to have it all. However the closer you pay attention, you will notice that it is that very notion of the perfect community is what makes the film both divisive and cynical. This isn't a revolutionary concept, but instead it offers a cynical examination of suburban lifestyles.  To me, viewing it as a dark satire of mega-suburban lifestyle is far more enjoyable and satisfying than interpreting it as (the still brilliant) poignant drama as it’s normally perceived to be.

While there may not be an “urban planning and design” section in your local video store, an awareness and understanding of these movies can visually create the potential for some self-reflection as planners and designers. By understanding which movies resonate (both positively and negatively) with our profession and why, deeper enlightenment can be sought of what we may feel to be the most daunting challenges and possibilities that this practice promotes. Film helps us to reconfigure our perspective on what is possible and what is real in planning, the construction of human interactions in any given place. 


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